"That was the single best game I've ever seen at this level in this atmosphere, hands down," said Brown. There were various other tributes offered (none by the sulky Pistons), but to a Cleveland sports public starved for success, the only fitting benediction would have been the one pronounced by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton as he stood over the dying body of Abraham Lincoln: "Now he belongs to the ages." Some believe that Stanton said "the angels." As far as Cleveland fans are concerned, LeBron belongs to them, too.
The Cavs won 17 games before James's arrival in 2003 and 35, 42 and 50 in the seasons that followed. When the team broke a huddle early this season, James suddenly yelled, "One, two, three...championship!" instead of the "defense" that had always followed. It took Mike Brown aback, but James kept saying it, and now, suddenly, it doesn't sound so absurd. It is not outlandish to claim that James is the most beloved Cleveland athlete since Jim Brown—and one more integrated into the civic fabric, hailing as he does from Akron, 30 miles south.
So far he hasn't had a major public-relations slipup. No one is suggesting that James doesn't have a monumental ego—the franchise runs on LeBron Standard Time—but James seems to authentically like his teammates. He identified Gibson as "a second-round steal" and bonded with him immediately. Before Game 6 James approached Gibson and told him that he expected to be double- and triple-teamed, "so get that gun and get it locked and loaded and just shoot it." NBA officials might have preferred a different metaphor, but there you are.
And when the game ended, James ran to 7'3" Zydrunas Ilgauskas at center court and they embraced joyously. It was a gracious gesture by James, for two more different players could hardly be found: the one a magnificent, seemingly indestructible physical force of 22, the other an oft-injured, lumbering plugger who came to Cleveland in '96 and played in only four playoff games before James arrived. "Z has been through a lot, been through losing seasons, year after year after year," said James, "and I promised him when I got drafted, I was going to try to change it."
In the final analysis the Pistons couldn't do anything but come apart as the Cavs and their leader grew up in the cauldron of the conference finals. One couldn't help but think that it marked the end of an era for these Pistons, who have made five straight conference finals but won only one NBA championship (in 2004).
Even if it may not yet be the Age of the Cavaliers, James, at least, seems prepared for the moment. The future of the East now runs through Cleveland, and Cleveland is ruled by a King.
From SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, June 11, 2007